Balthasar, Universalism, and the “Massa Damnata” Part Two: a Defense of Adrienne von Speyr

May 30, 2021
Best of Larry Chapp
A discussion of Adrienne Von Speyr, Balthasar, Universalism, and "Massa Damnata"

Ralph Martin, in his latest book “A Church in Crisis,” has some very uncharitable things to say about the mystic Adrienne von Speyr that merit a response.  Although he does not say so explicitly it is hard to escape the conclusion that he thinks her alleged charisms are false. Indeed, he thinks her visions of Hell are part of the satanic deception that we can realistically hope for the salvation of all.  I will deal with that point in my next blog post and will limit my comments here to what he says about Adrienne.

But before we get to that it is important to begin by pointing out how it is that the Church has traditionally adjudicated the legitimacy of mystical phenomena in general.  There are three areas in particular that the Church looks at in making such determinations.  First, does the mystic in question write anything that is unorthodox and contrary to the defined doctrines of the faith?  Second, does the life of the mystic give any indications of immoral or scandalous behavior? Third, does the mystic seem oriented to monetary gain and/or a desire to solicit fame and a “following” from his or her alleged charisms?

It would appear that von Speyr passes the test in all three of these areas. And it is instructive that Martin does not deal with her on this level – – the level of the Church’s own criteria – – but chooses instead to ignore these positive factors in favor of his own tendentious and highly selective focus on her putatively “unusual” relationship with von Balthasar and their mutual belief that one is allowed to hope for the salvation of all.  In other words, Martin’s analysis seems to be guided by his own private theological judgements about the population of Hell rather than by a serious attempt to judge von Speyr objectively using the Church’s standard measure for adjudication on such matters. This is made all the more strange (and suspect) by the fact of Martin’s reputation for wanting to think with the Church in all things  – – a fact that now seems to fly out the window when it comes to judging the validity of von Speyr’s charisms.  It would seem therefore that in this instance Martin has chosen to eschew the carefully developed methods of the Church in favor of his own private, single, criterion that it is a matter of defined doctrine that there are in fact going to be, or are, people in Hell, and probably lots of them.

With regard to the first criterion the Church uses for judging the validity of mystical phenomena it is quite clear that the many published writings of von Speyr have been judged by the Church to contain nothing that is contrary to the faith.  Most, if not all, of her major works have an imprimatur.  Nothing she has written has ever been questioned by the Magisterium and no serious theologian has ever asked Rome to “look into the matter.”  That is not to say that the Church is telling us that we must accept her theological conclusions.  All an imprimatur tells us is that the Church has made the judgment that there is nothing heterodox in whatever text is in question.  Indeed, and not to put too fine a point on it, no less a light than Saint Pope John Paul II approved of a conference held in Rome to explore her writings since he held them in high esteem.  In fact, he addressed the conference and encouraged all in attendance to look deeply into her writings in order to plumb the full depths of her theological insights.  So it is strange indeed that a woman who, according to Martin, was under the sway of a satanic deception would apparently write things of such theological depth that a Pope of John Paul’s intellectual stature would find them worthy of the Church’s consideration.  Here is what John Paul said to those gathered at the conference:

Address of the Holy Father John Paul II – colloquium address 1985
It is a joy for me to welcome you all at the conclusion of your colloquium on Adrienne von Speyr, the Swiss medical doctor who sought Catholic truth with such zeal until her conversion in 1940.
  1. A glance at your conference program indicates to me the substantial contribution each of you has made to the not altogether easy task of entering into, and assessing, Adrienne von Speyr’s writings and spiritual experiences.
I realize that in a friendly meeting of this sort you are not expecting me to offer a judgment invoking the authority I exercise in the Church. This does not mean, however, that I am any the less pleased with the work you have accomplished here. You have come together to seek a better understanding of the Lord’s mysterious, striking action in a human being athirst for Him.
As I say this—and certainly also because Adrienne von Speyr is a daughter of Switzerland—I am thinking of the amazing story of Rheno-Flemish mysticism in the 13th and 14th    centuries (especially the latter). I leave it to you to say whether those summits of mystical theology had an influence on this ardent convert.
Wasn’t it Eckhart who taught his disciples that “God urgently demands of you just one thing: to go out of yourself and let God be God in you”? One might suppose that the mystic separates himself from the created world, thus leaving his brothers in the lurch, but Eckhart himself assures them of the opposite: he is actually quite close to them, standing as he does where he can truly reach them, namely, in God.
  • I would also like to take this opportunity to greet the members of the Community of Saint John, which owes its very foundation to a sublime inspiration on the part of Adrienne. She had a special love for “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” the last, most profound expositor, as she saw him, of the mystery of Jesus, of the Father’s love for the world, and of the Holy Spirit whose sure hand guides us into the full light of the revelation of Father and Son. Her insight into the inmost communion of faith and love uniting the Mother of Jesus and the one disciple who persevered with her under the Cross was no less profound; it was here that she glimpsed the virginal origin of the Church that would be entrusted to Peter’s care. May this spirituality, which Adrienne embodied with such exemplary vigor, help you to incarnate ever better your own commitment to live in accord with Church and Gospel in the midst of the realities of the contemporary world.
Upon the organizers of this colloquium, as well as all its participants, I cordially invoke the fullness of divine grace.
from: Adrienne von Speyr und ihre kirchliche Sendung 1985 translated by Dr. Adrian Walker Ph.D.

These words hardly strike one as words of caution with regard to von Speyr’s orthodoxy. But perhaps John Paul had also succumbed to satanic influences.  Maybe Martin could write a missive on that as well. It should also be noted that von Speyr had no formal theological education of any kind and her published works were all the fruit of her prayers which she then dictated to Balthasar.  And if you read her works what strikes you immediately is the depth and breadth of her profound theological insights.  But none of this seems to impress Martin in the slightest and he ignores the vast majority of what she wrote in order to monomaniacly fixate on her statements about Hell.  Everything she produced is reduced by Martin to that single point. And it is that single point that is the hermeneutical filter through which he reads the whole (or doesn’t read as it seems), and to which he reduces the whole. As such, it is not so much a legitimate hermeneutical filter used in a proper way to help in the interpretation of a thinker’s views, as it is an ideological weapon wielded with ad hominem fervor.

Second, Martin pays no attention whatsoever to the life of deep charity that characterized von Speyr’s vocation as a doctor.  She was one of the first women in the history of Switzerland to become an officially licensed doctor.  She was also very pro life and refused to do the under the table abortions that were common in Switzerland at that time and strongly counseled women who came to her for abortions to keep their babies. Furthermore, she oriented her practice around service to the poor and never turned anyone away for lack of funds.  Poor people lined the sidewalk outside of her office in order to receive medical care denied to them elsewhere.  She also opened her home to many, many women in distress – – battered women, abused women, women in crisis pregnancies, and so on.  She was, by all accounts from those who knew her, a devoted and much beloved wife, mother, and grandmother who took her family responsibilities very seriously and showed a form of maternal care and love that had not one shred of anything dubious surrounding it.  And she accomplished all of this while spending a great deal of her life suffering from heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even eventually, blindness, without ever using her great physical sufferings as an excuse to back off of her commitment to the poor in her practice and her duties as a wife and mother.  There was never a single charge of anything morally or spiritually inappropriate leveled against her, which is probably why Martin ignores it.  It simply does not fit his purposes of casting her in a negative light as a fake mystic under the influence of satan.

Third, not only did von Speyr gain nothing of a pecuniary nature from her charisms, not to mention fame and a following, but in point of fact she kept all of her various mystical experiences a complete secret from all of those around her.  She eventually confides her experiences to von Balthasar, who had become her spiritual director, and under the seal of the confessional.  It was only after her death that Balthasar began to publish her various writings and to make known her mystical charisms (but not things that were revealed in confession of course). Therefore, it is quite clear beyond any shadow of a doubt that von Speyr had no desire to gain fame or fortune from her various charisms and went out of her way to hide them during her life.

Why then would she then later in life invent and lie about her various mystical experiences to Balthasar? To impress him and to gain his attention and favor?  Martin hints at this as he makes a big deal about the fact that Adrienne from time to time would scold Balthasar for not paying enough attention to her and of not being there for her during her mystical experiences of the Passion in particular. But it is Balthasar himself who makes note of these admonitions and he does so without the slightest hint that the scoldings were undeserved or that they were indicative of a weakness of character in Adrienne.  But Martin dismisses this interpretation by Balthasar and uses it instead as evidence that Balthasar and von Speyr had an overly uncritical appraisal of each other.  But this is just tendentiousness on Martin’s part since he was not there, has no real evidence beyond his own hunches that such was the case, and is not in any way supported by the overall context of what Balthasar writes about their relationship.  It would seem, therefore, that Martin has reached this conclusion merely out of his own prejudices against them due to his disagreement with their take on the eschatological census. Because those who knew Adrienne well never once insinuated that she was, overall, a nag or a “high maintenance” person who was always “needy” in an emotional way.  It was out of character to the whole tone and tenor of her life and Balthasar himself found it neither annoying nor weird.  But hey, Martin knows better than Balthasar and von Speyr themselves what their relationship was “really like” and is here to tell us that they were both under a spell of mutual bewitchment. How he knows that he does not say.

Martin goes out of his way to highlight the “unusual” relationship between von Speyr and Balthasar.  He notes that Balthasar himself characterizes their working relationship as unusual.  But Balthasar clearly does not mean by that the same thing as Martin does. Martin uses the term to connote “weird” rather than as merely “out of the ordinary” as Balthasar does. For a more accurate and objectively scholarly take on their relationship you can read an essay in First Things here from a former student of mine, Lois Miles, who did her doctoral work on von Speyr in Edinburg, Scotland.  Here is what she writes on this matter:

“While some may consider their relationship as odd or psychologically questionable, it fits firmly into the long tradition of the female mystic and the priest or monk as amanuensis who takes down the visions and preserves them for the Church. For example, even though Hildegard of Bingen was well educated and literate in ecclesiastical languages, her secretary, Volmar, recorded her visions and wrote her letters. Similarly, von Balthasar recorded von Speyr’s visions and dictated contemplations. Of course, mysticism in and of itself is not a problem for the Church since we note the multitude of mystics included as Saints and even as Doctors of the Church. The Church’s criteria for judging a mystic remains a life of godliness and charity in addition to writings that do not contradict Church teaching. For this reason, von Balthasar made sure that all von Speyr’s German publications received the imprimatur .

But perhaps the most objectionable aspect of Martin’s analysis of Balthasar’s spiritual direction of von Speyr is in Martin’s description of what they engaged in as a process of “recovered memories” and “spiritual channeling.” Both of these terms seem deliberately chosen by Martin in order to hint at some kind of “occult” influences in what was going on.  The language of “recovered memories” evokes images of a psychologist putting a patient under hypnosis in order to dredge up long forgotten elements from the past.  And, of course, the practice has come in for its fair share of criticism as numerous studies have cast doubt on the clinical legitimacy of such methods, owing to the power of suggestion and false “planted memories.” Martin is, no doubt, aware of these criticisms which is why, most likely, he chooses to use that term in regard to Balthasar and von Speyr in order to cast their relationship as under some kind of shadowy, hypnotic, occultism.  Balthasar did indeed help Adrienne to try and recover elements of her past life through a process of deep contemplative prayer in a manner not too dissimilar from the Ignatian practice of a guided examen of one’s entire life.  And he did so in order that he too might in some way be “present” in her former life, but not as some kind of occult time travel but as her spiritual director who was seeking to enter into her interiority more fully.  Therefore, given that this more Ignatian practice is most certainly what undergirded this examen of von Speyr’s life, Martin’s characterization of this practice as “recovered memories” is deeply unfair and, inaccurate.  And I think that should matter.

Likewise, to describe the dictating of her visions to Balthasar and his guiding her through her mystical experiences as “spiritual channeling” evokes images of psychic mediums conjuring up the dead in a seedy shop on Bourbon Street.  Many mystics who have Church approval had visions of the saints, Mary, and of Christ himself.  Many of those same mystics claim to have even had real conversations with the same.  And many of those mystics had spiritual directors who helped guide them through these visionary experiences in order to “test everything” as Saint Paul admonished us to do in such matters.  Were all of these approved mystics and their spiritual directors also engaged in “spiritual channeling?” Martin, of course, conveniently ignores these other mystics and treats von Speyr as dubious simply because she claims to have had similar experiences.  But his argument proves too much and if it were to become a criterion for adjudicating the legitimacy of spiritual visions I highly doubt that many of these approved mystics would be able to jump that hurdle either.  But I highly doubt that Martin would apply his litmus test to these other mystics and, once again, only applies it to von Speyr because he wants to cast aspersions on her legitimacy as a mystic in order to undermine and invalidate her views on Hell, which Martin thinks she does not sufficiently populate.  His entire line of argumentation is, therefore, a form of ad hominem attack in the service of his massa damnata theological agenda.

In reality, and what Martin either ignores or is simply ignorant of, what von Speyr and Balthasar are most often engaging in is another time honored Ignatian spiritual practice.  Namely, the prayer method of the “colloquy” where Saint Ignatius asks us to use our powers of imagination in prayer to place ourselves in the presence of the saints, Mary, and Christ, as if they were in a room with us and with whom we are having a conversation. You can get a brief description of this practice here. This conversational form of prayer is not an attempt to invent purely fictitious conversations but is rather a method for developing a real conversation that treats God and the saints as real persons with whom we can develop a living relationship.  There is nothing unusual, bizarre, or occult about it and has been a standard form of prayer for millions of Christians for millennia.  The colloquy is Ignatius’s development of that tradition in his Exercises and is a perfectly valid prayer form.  And for von Speyr, as well as many of the approved mystics in the Church, it was their unique charism that this form of prayer developed into real, intimate conversations with Christ, Mary, and the saints.  So far from being an occult exercise in “spiritual channeling” what von Speyr is doing is very Ignatian and is in keeping with the fact that her spiritual director was a Jesuit. And many of her dictations to Balthasar concerning her conversations with the saints were the result of her colloquy prayer form.

The deep irony, of course, and as I noted in my previous blog post on the topic of Martin’s book, is that Martin himself has had a long standing relationship with the Catholic charismatic movement.   And even though I think that movement is both legitimate and good, it remains true nevertheless, that it has had its fair share of frauds and fools.  It is also a movement characterized by folks claiming to have all kinds of supernatural charisms in the form of prophecies, speaking in tongues, words of knowledge, healings, and mystical visions.  So it is clear that Martin has no historic aversion to claims of supernatural visitations or associating himself with spiritual movements that have a hefty share of phonies.  Indeed Martin himself has in the past been associated with and promoted as legitimate a woman who claimed to have supernatural gifts but who later turned out to be a fraud and a grifter.  And he has, for decades now, touted “prophecies” from charismatics that turned out not to be true, and has quoted and referenced messages from the sketchy Garabandal phenomenon.  So it would seem that Martin is not casting small stones at legitimate targets from a fortified position of strength, but is rather hurling large, flaming tar balls of condemnation at undeserving targets from the balcony of his glass house.

In none of what I have written am I claiming that I know that von Speyr’s charisms are valid.  I do not know that even though by all of the usual ecclesial metrics I also have no reason to doubt them.  Everyone is free to make up their own minds about such things and the Church has repeatedly taught that no Catholic is obliged to accept any private revelation – – even ones approved by the Church as worthy of belief and placed on our liturgical calendars.  My only purpose in defending von Speyr in this post is to point out the abject uncharity of the reading Martin gives to her relationship with von Balthasar and that he seems to have made it his mission to attack their character in order to undermine their theology. And this is a violation of the protocols for proper theological discourse in any known academic universe.  And in so doing, Ralph Martin has actually hurt his cause since he has now done incalculable harm to his reputation among many theologians, such as myself, who have long admired his work and who have been deeply sympathetic to his message and his causes, only now to find ourselves deeply put-off by his mission to destroy the reputation and the character of two fellow Catholics whose only sin was to believe that we really can hope for what it is that Paul says God wills: the salvation of all.  And it is to that topic that I will turn in my next post.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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